When I was growing up, paying for child care for my brother and I placed an immense financial strain on my parents. I still clearly remember overhearing their conversations about the financial catch-22 they were in: They couldn’t pay the bills (including the child care bills) without each working 40-50 hours per week – one of them staying home with the kids full-time simply wasn’t an option – but they also could barely afford the child care that made it possible for them to work full-time. Today, thousands of Marquette families are still trapped in this same vicious circle, except it has become even more vicious in the past 20 years.
There are two fundamental problems with child care in Marquette: 1) There are nowhere near enough child care spots available for the number of children we have in our community, and 2) The cost of child care has become unaffordable for most families.
In fact, a 2022 MARESA survey found that 71% of parents in Marquette County are unable to find the child care services their family needs, either because they aren’t available or they can’t afford them. The reasons for this are made clear by the astounding statistics on child care costs and availability in Marquette: A 2017 study by the Michigan Dept. of Education found that the cost of infant care in Marquette County is the 5th-highest among all 83 counties in Michigan (surpassed only by the four Detroit metro counties). According to the MDE, Marquette County also has the 6th-highest toddler care costs and the 12th-highest preschool costs.
The 2021 Marquette County Master Plan (which I helped write as a former County employee) also notes that ““There is a major shortage of affordable, licensed child care options in Marquette County … it can take up to a year to get through some local child care centers’ waiting lists. This means that an expecting mother in Marquette County would potentially need to register for child care immediately upon learning of her pregnancy (and perhaps even earlier).” Just one year later, anecdotal reports from parents now indicate that the typical waiting period for infant care in Marquette is now 2-4 years. As the County Master Plan states, “This shortage of affordable child care options is not reasonable or sustainable, and is hurting Marquette County families.”
Still, as someone without children of my own, when I first started knocking on doors for my City Commission campaign in 2019, I was shocked by how many people (usually women in their 20s or 30s) would immediately tell me that child care was the most urgent, important issue for them and their families. At the time, I listened carefully to their concerns and said I’d try to do something if elected. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what the City could do, but when I got elected, I did my research, attended webinars, and met with local parents and child care providers to try to find out. A lot of people told me I was wasting my time – they said child care wasn’t a “City issue”, there was nothing the City could or should do about it, it was just a private market, “these people” shouldn’t have kids they can’t afford or should just magically bootstrap their way to a higher-paying job, and so on and so forth. But as it turned out, there was a lot more the City government could have been doing for years to help address Marquette’s child care crisis.
Like the housing affordability crisis, child care is not just a local or regional issue – it is a nationwide problem with deep-rooted macroeconomic causes, and it cannot be completely solved at a local level and certainly not by the City government. But that isn’t an excuse for inaction, as some have so often claimed – the City can and should be doing a lot of things that could make a real difference for families with children in Marquette. Here are 9 pro-family, pro-child care policies that I have been advocating for on the City Commission for the past 3 years, and will continue fighting for every day if re-elected (and yes, all of these policies have been tried and have worked in many other communities):
- Eliminate barriers to child care in the City zoning code. The City zoning code is also a big limiting factor for child care providers in Marquette. When the first child care centers in Marquette were opening, providers wanted to locate their centers in residential neighborhoods in order to give kids a neighborhood experience and promote convenience and safety. Now, child care centers are zoned commercial by the City, which is very restrictive and results in most new centers being located far from residential neighborhoods where families actually live. This decreases convenience for parents and safety for kids, and provides a less stimulating environment. Some of the changes the City could make could include: Allowing smaller Child Care Group Homes and larger Child Care Centers as by-right uses in all residential zoning districts – currently they are either prohibited or require a Special Land Use Permit in these districts, which requires a public hearing, special permission from the Planning Commission, a substantial fee, and can take weeks or even months from start to finish. Updating setback requirements to conform with state regulations. Minimum setback requirements in the City zoning code often prevent playground equipment, decks, sheds, and other necessary structures from complying with state licensing requirements that child care providers must meet. Reducing off-street parking requirements for child care facilities. The City often requires too much off-street parking for child care facilities, and if more child care centers could be located in neighborhoods, off-street parking would be less of an issue anyway. Parking requirements often prevent child care centers from being built anywhere near the city center or existing neighborhoods, and often prevent Family Homes from expanding to Group Homes or Group Homes from expanding to Child Care Centers, limiting the number of child care spots available in Marquette. Removing the term “Day Care” from the City zoning code – most licensed child care providers find it outdated and demeaning.
- Create a simple online toolkit to help providers start a child care business in Marquette. A great example of this sort of toolkit has already been created by the City of Detroit.
- Establish a local Early Childhood Council. This has been done very successfully in Colorado, where the state requires every county to have an Early Childhood Council focused on meeting child care needs in that county. An Early Childhood Council would not need to be led by the City, and would most likely have a county-wide or regional focus. However, the City could play a leading role in bringing together regional stakeholders (child care providers, parents, major employers, economic development organizations, local and state government officials, etc.) to establish an Early Childhood Council to share information on child care, identify solutions, and then find the funding and people needed to implement those solutions.
- Incentivize family-friendly workplaces. Realistically, we will never be able to meet Marquette families’ child care needs through professional child care and preschool services alone – parents will always need to shoulder most of the burden of child care. Let’s focus on making that easier for them by incentivizing local employers to implement "family-friendly workplace policies." The City can do this primarily through a three-step positive social pressure campaign: First, identify a set of standards that any family-friendly workplace should be able to meet. Second, educate local employers about these standards and why they are good for business and for their employees (enlisting local business leaders and organizations to help with this will be crucial to ensure that this doesn’t come across as government finger-wagging). Third (and most importantly), publicly recognize every single employer that has met the standards to be certified by the City as a “Marquette Family-Friendly Workplace,” with badges that they can put on their place of business, promotional materials, or website, a City webpage listing all of the Marquette Family-Friendly Workplaces, and social media posts and in-person award ceremonies recognizing every single employer that meets these standards.
- Have the City inspect child care facilities instead of the State. One of the barriers facing new providers looking to enter the child care space is the massive backlog in safety and regulatory compliance inspections for new child care facilities. These inspections are usually conducted by state inspectors, but the State of Michigan could easily delegate this authority to the City without the need for any legislative action from Lansing, and City inspectors who already conduct fire and life safety inspections could step in to eliminate the child care inspection backlog in Marquette, as they are already trained to conduct these inspections.
- Help expand the child care workforce. Almost all child care providers are face serious staffing shortages, especially with uncompetitive pay and NMU ending their 2-year Early Childhood Education certification program. While the City unfortunately cannot directly provide scholarships to students currently pursuing their Child Development Associate certifications (this is due to state law and City Charter restrictions on the use of City funds), the City can play a leading role in working with local nonprofits and charitable organizations to raise funds for initiatives like this that help expand our local child care workforce. The City should also apply pressure to NMU to recommit to training the next generation of child care professionals, which would dramatically expand our local child care workforce.
- Promote mixed-use development of housing and child care facilities. Child Care Centers and Group Homes are already allowed as by-right uses in the City’s Mixed-Use zoning districts. The City could promote this kind of mixed-use development by requiring some kind of child care facility as a feature of a future affordable or mixed-income housing development on City-owned property. This might seem unrealistic, but it has been done successfully by many local governments – to cite just one example, in 2020 Teton County, WY bought a vacant downtown commercial space in Jackson, WY (pop. 10,000), and redeveloped it with affordable housing on the upper levels and an affordable daycare center on the street level. This development model could absolutely work in Marquette.
- Directly provide child care services to City employees & residents. NICE Community School District is already doing with their NICE Start program – NICE Start provides high-quality, affordable preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds. This program is provided at-cost to keep rates low for families, and primarily serves the children of teachers and support staff who work for the school district, but is also open to parents with children in the district depending on how many spots are available. There is no reason the City (or other major employers and service providers like NMU, Marquette Area Public Schools, UPHS, etc.) could not do something similar.
- Support the creation of a local child care voucher program. Perhaps the most obvious long-term solution to the affordability side of the child care crisis is to simply give money to families who are struggling to pay for child care. Child care vouchers could be flexible – parents could choose to use them as tuition assistance at any licensed child care provider or preschool, or could use the voucher to help replace lost income from reducing their work hours to stay at home to care for their children themselves.
Such a program could be funded through a variety of means. An Early Childhood Council or similar organization could support a child care voucher program through grant funds – for example, the Early Childhood Council in Routt County, CO collects $300,000 in funding from nonprofits each year to provide child care vouchers to middle-class families who earn slightly too much to qualify for income-based childcare subsidies through the State of Colorado. Alternatively, a child care voucher program could be partially or wholly funded through a dedicated local income tax or local, county-wide, or regional millage, either of which would need to be approved by voters.